In Season: Quinces, Late Fall to Early Winter

As a California native now living on the East Coast, eating seasonally is in my blood. From summertime apricot galettes to hearty beef stews when the weather turns cold, I eat and enjoy them all. In this column, come with me as I explore the foods and flavors of each new season, highlighting produce and ingredients that are fresh and bountiful. Each week I'll be offering a new recipe—sometimes unusual, sometimes familiar—for precisely the kind of food I like to eat. And I hope you will, too.

I went apple picking recently, and while walking through orchards of fruit-laden trees, I noticed a measly row of rag-tag foliage to which no one seemed to be paying much attention. Upon closer inspection, I realized that these were not forgotten apple trees, but quince trees—with the fruit ready for the picking. Needless to say, I went home that day with the requisite few pounds of apples, and piles of piles of quinces.
 
The quince is an interesting fruit. Maybe you have seen them at the market, or even spotted their dusty exterior, but weren’t ever sure just what to do with them. With a potent fragrance, reminiscent of a pineapple mingled with a pear, this sweet, tropical scent may have you eager to take a bite. But let me warn you, the quince is not a fruit to be eaten raw. It is puckery and astringent, with a tough skin that will leave you longing for something soft and sweet. Long story short—quinces need to be cooked, but this can be done in a variety of simple and delicious ways.
 
Due to their tough skin, quinces have an abundance of pectin, that flavorless substance found in fruit that when cooked, makes gelling a dream. This makes quinces ideal for jams, jellies, and pastes. Membrillo, or quince paste, is a popular Spanish condiment for sale in many gourmet shops. It is sweet, with the consistency of a gumdrop and a beautiful ruddy hue. Although quince paste seems fancy, making it at home is simple. It requires just a handful of ingredients, and the pay-off is sublime.
 
Once made, the paste is very versatile. It is popularly eaten as an hors d’oeuvre, thinly sliced and topping Spanish Manchego cheese on a crusty piece of bread. But the paste is not cloyingly sweet, and can be used like a jelly on your morning toast or diced to add a fruity flavor to an ordinary cake. Quince paste keeps for many months in the refrigerator, so make a batch and you’ll have a bit of autumn during the chill of the winter holidays.
 
Quince Paste
 
2 pounds quinces (about 5)
¼ to ½ cup water
2 cups sugar
½ whole vanilla bean
 
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash well, and dry the quinces. Place on a baking sheet, and roast for about 1 ½ to 2 hours, or until fork tender. When roasting is complete and the quinces are cool enough to handle, peel, core and slice into 1-inch chunks. A peeler may not even be needed; the peel may release with your fingers.
 
In a food processor, puree the chunks until smooth. Add water a bit at a time; the desired consistency is like loose mashed potatoes. Force puree through a fine mesh sieve, to get out any remaining lumps.
 
Transfer puree to a pot or Dutch oven. Add sugar, and half the vanilla bean. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Puree will take on a copper color, and thicken substantially. Puree is turning to a paste when a spoon leaves a separation in the mixture. This should take about 25 minutes. 
 
Pour the puree into a terrine or a 9-inch square-baking dish. Discard the vanilla bean. Puree should be no more than an inch tall. Smooth with an offset spatula, and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Chill in refrigerator until set, about 3 hours. When chilled, cut into brick with a warm knife. Wrap well in plastic wrap. Paste will stay in the refrigerator for many months.
 
   
Adrienne Kane is a writer and photographer. She is the author of a memoir, Cooking and Screaming, and the food blog, nosheteria.com.
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